By Dave Bontempo
From a lifeguard’s perspective, beach safety requires you to anticipate and react instantly, and can involve advanced schooling. The public has its own role in beach safety: practicing several small steps to minimize danger.
Here is some insight and helpful tips from the Avalon and Stone Harbor beach patrols.
AVALON: SCHOOLING PAYS OFF
Brett Fitzpatrick and Tyler Wolf decided to roll the dice with their careers last fall. A recent Avalon visitor cashed the chips.
Wolf and Fitzpatrick took an intense paramedic certification course in Texas, and it already has come in handy. They responded decisively when a person split open his head after slipping on a jetty early in the season. The Avalon patrol veterans made a quick, calculated and successful effort to prepare the victim for transport to a local hospital.
“The more training you have, the more things you see on the field and the better prepared you are for whatever comes up,” Fitzpatrick says. “This one was a little strange, but when the call came in and when we headed down there, we were able to get right into patient care without being flustered. Normally you can be taken aback by that scene. When you see water on a person who is bleeding a lot, it sometimes looks a lot worse than what it is [and can make a caregiver hesitant]. We got in there with no gawking, help put pressure on the injury, put a collar on him and put him on a backboard.”
Fitzpatrick says the collar helps keep the spine in place and the longboard is essential for helping to load the victim onto an SUV, which then meets an ambulance on the street. The victim was given an excellent chance to recover quickly.
Wolf and Fitzpatrick have a rare, highly specialized set of lifeguarding credentials, which were not obtained easily. During that certification course in Texas, their intense classroom instruction lasted eight hours a day, three days a week. Then they logged 700 clinical hours, assisting different units including fire departments. They returned to New Jersey and passed both the practical and written examinations to become certified paramedics. Both guards made an up-front investment of $3,000 for the course and perhaps another $7,000 out of pocket for rent, gasoline, food, etc.
It was a calculated choice. Rather than jockeying between work and school, they did their schooling, clinical training and test-taking in about three months. The process would have taken about two years here. They can enter the professional force in the paramedic realm much faster than normal now.
It was a tough career choice many face in this sputtering economy: power their way through school or slowly obtain credits while working. Few can choose the path Wolf and Fitzpatrick took. At least one victim is glad they could.
MATT WOLF’S SAFETY TIPS
While Wolf and Fitzpatrick represent an extreme contribution to beach safety, patrols are always communicating safety tips. Matt Wolf, Tyler’s brother and an administrative lieutenant for the Avalon Beach Patrol run by his father Murray, has some of his own favorites:
- SWIM NEAR A LIFEGUARD: “It all starts with that. Our guards are well-trained. Every one on that lifeguard stand has experience. We don’t put any first-year kids there. Many of our guards have had three to four summers on the beach and a good number have nine or 10.”
- DON’T SWIM ALONE: “People don’t realize how dangerous the ocean is. Even if it’s me, I won’t go swimming by myself at night. It’s very dangerous. The ocean is not a swimming pool, it’s not a lake, it’s not a river. It moves the way it wants and does what it wants. There have been drownings up and down the coast, and it often involves people who go out right after the guards are finished doing their job.”
- KNOW HOW FAR TO GO OUT: “The best situation is to go no further than you can go and still keep your feet on the ground. Look, we always assume that nobody can swim, that’s the safest situation to start from, but even so, one of the biggest concerns we have comes with the west wind and kids on the boogie board are going to get blown out into the ocean. We are concerned, especially during the storms we get in late August.”
- SWIM SOBER: Shouldn’t have to be said. “We don’t allow alcohol on the beach and we monitor that.”
STONE HARBOR: PIPE DANGER
Fifth-year guard Kurt Kircher emphasizes that beaches, and landmarks, vary. He patrols 110th Street in Stone Harbor, next to some prominent pipes that look visible during low tide. When high tide occurs, swimmers may forget them. That could be dangerous.
“The current can get bad near the pipes, and before you know it you are being pulled in that direction,” he says. “You have to be careful because you can hit your foot, or your head, or get cut because of the barnacles. There are simply some things you can’t see during high tide, so you must be aware of that and stay away.”
So, do be aware of the pipes. What about some of the don’ts?
- DON’T PANIC: Kircher advises parents who can’t find their children to address the nearest lifeguard, who can put the entire patrol in search of them. “The important thing for a parent is not to panic. You come up to me and I can make a radio call to headquarters with a description of your child. All the beaches will hear that. You can understand how people would panic, but if they come to us right away, we can reach everybody on duty.”
- DON’T GET RIPPED: Kircher offered an interesting assessment regarding rip currents. They pull people out into the ocean. His advice? Go sideways. “Swim parallel to the beach. That can’t be stressed enough. If you are stuck in one and you can’t fight through it, swim parallel until you feel the current not taking you out.”